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A fabulous tale of discovering Wodehouse from Bill De Herder.
In December, I had the delightful privilege of seeing Perfect Nonsense on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For anyone not already aware, Perfect Nonsense is a stage adaptation (by David and Robert Goodale) of The Code of the Woosters. It’s been well received by West End audiences since opening in 2013, and is now touring the UK until mid-2015 (see the official site for details). If you’re planning to see the show and don’t want to read my review, look away now.
The Goodale brothers’ clever adaptation sticks closely to Wodehouse’s original story and delicious dialogue, ensuring a production that is pure Wodehouse. But Perfect Nonsense is not a mere staging of the book. The Goodales have added their own comic twist by having all the characters played by just three actors.
The play opens with Bertie Wooster reclining in a favourite armchair. He begins to tell us the sorry tale of his recent entanglement with Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, old pop Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode and an eighteenth-century cow-creamer. Wodehouse fans in the audience will know where this is going. To assist in the retelling, Bertie enlists the help of Jeeves, and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) to ‘play’ the other characters in his narrative.
This ingenious strategy adds something new for Wodehouse fans, without detracting from Wodehouse’s original work — it is also great fun. Jeeves and Seppings undergo an exhausting repertoire of inventive costume changes, in which lampshades become hats and curtains become dresses. The hard-working Seppings is, at one point, dressed as Aunt Dahlia inside a giant Spode suit. John Gordon Sinclair and Robert Goodale were utterly entertaining and memorable as Jeeves and Seppings (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield in the original cast).
Bertie’s role is physically less demanding, with no elaborate costume or character changes to contend with, but requires a delicate balance of jovial stupidity. It’s not an exact science, but Wodehouse fans can be unforgiving when actors get it wrong. Stephen Mangan was well received in the original cast, and I thought Joel Sams did a sound job (as cover for James Lance) in Bath.
Inventive sets were a highlight of this production, with two revolving interiors that cunningly transformed from Bertie’s London flat into an antique shop in the Brompton Road, various locations around Totleigh Towers, and even accommodated a thrilling drive in Bertie’s two-seater. Set changes were comically incorporated into the theatrics: Jeeves twiddles a handle on the wall to change the painting over the fireplace, while Bertie jiggles paper flames at the end of two sticks. The dog Bartholomew also makes notable appearances. These small details added to the joy of the performance, without detracting from the complicated storyline or Wodehouse’s original dialogue.
No doubt a Wodehouse purist, for such creatures I regret to say exist, would find something in this adaptation to pick on. It is often argued that Wodehouse ought not be adapted at all – that it somehow sullies the perfection of his art. But while comic prose was certainly his forte, Wodehouse’s versatility as a writer included a long association with the theatre, predominantly as a lyricist, but also as a writer and critic. As an added bonus, a reminder of Wodehouse’s theatrical career is provided by Tony Ring in the Perfect Nonsense programme.
During his lifetime, P.G. Wodehouse demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different forms and genres, and to collaborate with others. Intelligent adaptations like Perfect Nonsense remind us of this wider legacy, and remain welcome by fans who simply cannot get enough of his stuff.
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Thanks to regular readers who contacted me during my recent absence from Plumtopia. Awfully decent of you! Results of the Wodehouse Survey are currently being collated into a paper for the 2015 convention and will be shared here in due course.
I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
The Inimitable Jeeves was one of the first Wodehouse books I encountered, and one I recommend to new readers as a great place to start. It has been included in several lists of ‘classic books you must read’, but don’t let that put you off – it’s terrific! The Inimitable Jeeves is a great introduction to Wodehouse’s best known characters, Bertie Wooster and his valet (or gentleman’s gentleman) Jeeves. It’s not the first Jeeves and Wooster instalment – that honour goes to the short story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ but The Inimitable Jeeves is one of the earliest and best collections in the saga. It is also where we meet key personnel including Bingo Little, Honoria Glossop, her father Sir Roderick Glossop, and the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks.
A collection of connected stories rather than a conventional novel, The Inimitable Jeeves is a book Wodehouse fans return to, dipping into favourite chapters when our troubled souls require soothing. The thirteenth chapter, The Great Sermon Handicap, is particularly revered by readers, and compulsory inclusion in any ‘Best of Wodehouse’ collection.
In The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie goes through a series of personal ordeals, as well as acting as confidant in the affairs of his pal, Bingo Little.
‘Is Mr Little in trouble, sir?’
‘Well, you might call it that. He’s in love. For about the fifty-third time. I ask you, Jeeves, as man to man, did you ever see such a chap?’
‘Mr Little is certainly warm-hearted, sir.’
‘Warm-hearted! I should think he has to wear asbestos vests….’
An alternative title for The Inimitable Jeeves might have been ‘The Romances of Bingo Little’. Although Bingo does not feature in all of the episodes, his quest for a soul mate is a recurring theme throughout the book. Wodehouse opens proceedings with Bingo’s ill-fated romance with a waitress named Mabel and, after further disappointments, closes with his eventual happy union.
Bertie has matrimonial problems of his own in The Inimitable Jeeves, thanks to the interference of Aunt Agatha, who feels her nephew requires improvement. Aunt Agatha had appeared previously in ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ and she remains a force throughout the saga as one of Wodehouses’s most serious-minded characters.
‘It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in idle selfishness a life which might have been made useful, helpful and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.’
‘But, dash it all . . .’
‘Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .’
‘No, really, I say, please!’ I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.
Aunt Agatha first selects Aline Hemmingway, a curate’s sister she meets while on holiday in France. Her next candidate for the future Mrs Wooster is the formidable Honoria Glossop, who proves more difficult to shake off. During their brief engagement, Bertie is fed on a diet of serious art and literature until his eyes bubble.
…She looked at me in a proprietary sort of way. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie. It is true yours has been a wasted life up to the present, but you are still young , and there is a lot of good in you.’
‘No, really there isn’t.’
‘Oh, yes, there is. It simply wants bringing out…’
Jeeves finds a way to disentangle Bertie from these affairs. In the case of Honoria Glossop, he convinces Honoria’s father, Sir Roderick Glossop (the noted nerve specialist), that Bertie is mentally unhinged. This particular story was one of the best adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster television series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Although the series created additional scenes, characters (there is no Lady Glossop in the book) and dialogue (often erroneously attributed to Wodehouse), their adaptation was in keeping with the original, and expertly handled by Fry and Laurie.
Not all Wodehouse adaptations have been so well made, causing some people to feel that Wodehouse simply cannot be adapted. I disagree, although I appreciate the difficulty of adapting a humourist whose prose style is so integral to his comedy. Take, for example, this much quoted passage from The Inimitable Jeeves:
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me.
How do you translate the joy of reading this passage on the screen? In the case of Jeeves and Wooster, they had a distinct advantage in that Bertie’s narrative could be turned into authentic dialogue. Adapting Wodehouse’s other works, predominantly written in the third-person, is more challenging and a delicate touch is required. Certainly nothing brings greater despair to the optimistic Wodehouse lover than a misguided adaptation, but we can’t expect Wodehouse adaptations to match the pleasure of reading the original. Nonetheless, it is possible to adapt Wodehouse’s marvellous plots and dialogue very successfully.
Similar problems are faced when quoting Wodehouse. A joyful passage or witty one-liner shoved out into the online universe falls pitifully short of the joy of reading the words in situ. I often struggle to select quotations to include in this blog, because a passage I love on the page often seems to lose a little of its sparkle in isolation. It seems a shame to quote a mere three sentences when the preceding seven paragraphs are full of ripping stuff. Where does one draw the line? It’s rather like hacking off a piece of Michelangelo‘s David and plopping it on the table for inspection – without the rest of him.
But quote and adapt we do, because of the joy Wodehouse brings us.
I’ve digressed rather a lot, as usual. There’s much more to The Inimitable Jeeves that I haven’t mentioned, like Bertie’s period of exile in America, and Comrade Bingo’s brief membership of the Heralds of the Red Dawn.
‘Hospitality?’ snorted the man Butt, going off in my ear like a depth-charge. He was scowling in a morose sort of manner at young Bingo and the girl, who were giggling together by the window. ‘I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!’
‘Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!’
‘I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,’ said old Rowbotham. ‘And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.’
Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.
And then there’s the incomparable ‘Purity of the Turf’, but… I’m not going to do all the heavy spade work for you. If you haven’t read about them, you’ll just have to buzz off and read The Inimitable Jeeves for yourself. And if you have already done so, I can do no better than leave you to reflect on happy memories.
My grateful thanks to Zanyzigzag for permission to reblog this excellent piece.
Pelham Grenville (Plum) Wodehouse was a comic writer and lyricist, who, in the words of Hugh Laurie, “was quite simply the funniest man ever to put words to paper”.
I remember the first time I ever read Wodehouse. A year or so ago I bought a copy of “Thank You Jeeves” and it is not too much to say that my world of reading was transformed by it. On finishing the book I recall being staggered, absolutely flabbergasted, by the thought that if I hadn’t read Moab and found out that Stephen Fry liked Wodehouse, I would never have discovered him for myself – a thought that still sends shivers up my spine even now. How, HOW had no one told me about this?? I suddenly felt as though I understood how born-again Christians feel when they first discover Jesus. I wanted to stand in the town square brandishing my…
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